Zionsville Mayor Emily Styron’s administration lost its appeal in the Indiana Court of Appeals on Feb. 7 to overturn a trial court ruling that denied the mayor the power to demote department heads without town council approval.
The conflict began during a March 15, 2021, Zionsville Town Council meeting when, citing lack of evidence, the town council unanimously voted against the mayor’s request to demote Zionsville Fire Dept. Chief James C. VanGorder for performance-related accusations.
Immediately after the meeting, Styron placed VanGorder, who has served as Zionsville’s fire chief since 1996, on a one-week, paid administrative leave and informed him he would no longer have the same responsibilities when he returned.
On March 16, 2021, Styron, Zionsville’s first Democratic mayor, sued the all-Republican town council on the grounds that she believed Zionsville’s 2014 reorganization resolution gave her the authority to demote department heads without town council approval. The council argued that VanGorder’s demotion was a discharge, or firing, as he would no longer hold the roles and responsibilities the fire chief normally would. Both the trial and appeals courts sided with the defendants, with the rulings happening on June 4, 2021, and Feb. 7, respectively.
Town Council President Jason Plunkett hopes the ruling ends the nearly year-long court battle between the town council and mayor.
“The Town Council appreciates the decision of the Indiana Court of Appeals to uphold the Trial Court’s ruling,” Plunkett stated. “The Indiana Court of Appeals has reaffirmed the town’s reorganization and specifically that the mayor may not discharge a department chair without the town council’s approval. We hope this decision ends any disagreement on the delineation of responsibilities between the Mayor and the Town Council. We implore the mayor to accept this decision and move forward with us, so that we can focus our time and tax dollars on improving our community.”
Styron issued the following statement after the ruling.
“I have received the opinion from the Court of Appeals affirming the Trial Court’s Order. When multiple members of the Fire Department approached me with concerns about their leadership, as Town Executive, I took action on behalf of the best interests of the departmental staff,” she stated. “I sought a clear path for interpreting the reorganization documents. As Mayor, I am committed to continuing to meet with and work with both Fire Department leadership and members of the Town Council on behalf of our Town employees and the citizens of Zionsville.”